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Nation’s Wealthiest Families Behind the Effort to Kill the Estate Tax

June 25, 2015

Nation’s Wealthiest Families Behind the Effort to Kill the Estate Tax

Legislation Introduced to Ensure These Billionaires Pay Closer to Their Fair Share

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Just nine families could dodge $25.7 billion in taxes, and perhaps as much as $54.7 billion, if the estate tax were repealed. Half of these families have spent more than a million dollars apiece lobbying Congress to repeal the tax between 2012 and the first quarter of 2015, a new Public Citizen report shows.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a repeal of the estate tax in April. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), had more than 100 co-sponsors. A frequently used argument in support of the bill was that repeal is necessary to save family farms and small businesses.

However, few, if any, family farms would be subject to the estate tax. Only an estimated 0.2 percent of American estates are subject to the tax, and rules give farmers and small businesses more time to pay the tax. In fact, only 660 taxable estates included farm assets, and the average value of those estates was $2.8 million, far below the level at which those assets are exempt from the tax.

Instead, it is the nation’s richest of the rich who stand to lose from the tax.

The families behind the eight companies pushing to repeal the tax include the Mars, Wegman, Cox, Taylor, Van Andel, DeVos, Bass, Schwab and Hall families. The Mars and Wegman families alone, who have a combined net worth of more than $63 billion, spent more than $3.5 million to lobby solely for the repeal of the estate tax during the time period studied. The report, “Billionaires’ Bluff: How America’s Richest Families Hide Behind Small Businesses and Family Farms in Effort to Repeal Estate Tax,” also details the more than $6.9 million that the other seven billionaire families spent lobbying on issues that included the estate tax but that were not possible to separate out from other issues on which the groups lobbied.

Public Citizen and other members of the Americans for Tax Fairness coalition endorsed legislation introduced today by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that would close loopholes in the existing tax regime that allow billionaire families like the ones highlighted in the report to escape paying the 40 percent maximum tax on estates.

“Like a zombie, the myth of the estate tax killing small businesses and family farms refuses to die,” said Susan Harley, deputy director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and co-editor of the report. “Given the mounting public pushback to income inequality in this country, it’s not surprising that the nation’s richest families are hiding behind that false argument since they stand to avoid tens of billions of dollars in taxes if the tax were repealed.”

“The lengths to which these billionaire families will go to avoid paying their fair share of taxes is appalling,” said Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness. “Instead of helping build an economy that works for everyone, these billionaires are investing their money in high-priced lobbyists whose sole purpose is to help the super-rich get even richer.”

The U.S. Senate version of legislation to repeal the estate tax (S. 860) is sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and has 38 co-sponsors but has yet to be considered. President Barack Obama’s administration has signaled that he would be advised to veto the legislation should it reach his desk.

“Even though the fate of the estate tax repeal is thankfully doomed at this point, it’s important that the American public understands that it’s really billionaire families who stand to lose from the repeal of the estate tax and they’re the ones behind the push to repeal it,” said Harley. “Instead of trying to kill the tax, members of Congress should support the proposal to close loopholes in the estate tax and make those who can afford to pay more, do so.”